We think we shape life. That’s wrong. Life shapes us. All readers know how they first learned this. Here’s my story, one that will help corporate counsel when it comes to deciding whether to impose the equivalent of capital punishment in employment: termination. It was 1975. Much to my mother’s dismay, I dropped out of college, moved to Washington, D.C., and started to work at a large, 800-room convention hotel as a desk clerk. Working hard, I was promoted to chief clerk (hot stuff). D.C. was a mosaic of cultures. The bell staff was mostly Arabic; when it was slow, they taught me salty language in their native language. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that words are like loaded guns. I was about to find out how right he was. It was Sunday night. The hotel was busy earlier and finally had slowed down. It was around 11 p.m., and I got off at midnight. Suddenly, several guests came in, crowding around the front desk. A gentleman from Dubuque, Iowa, was at the line’s head, surrounded by his large family, all blocking my view of line’s end. As I checked them in, I handed the keys to a bellman, Manny. He was from Jordan. I needled Manny by using my new vocabulary to call him a pig in Arabic, which is one of the worst words to say to an Arab. As the family cleared away, my view finally unobstructed, I saw three Arab gentlemen whose reservations were made by the Lebanese embassy around the corner from the hotel. Oh geez! Had they heard? Was I toast? Could I bribe them into silence with an upgrade to a suite? They let on nothing. It was a restless night. Next shift, I came in but was told to see the assistant manager before starting work. He was Lebanese. Coming into his office, he swept his hand toward his guest chair, and I saw spread out across his desk my personnel file, including many complimentary letters from satisfied guests. (When anyone ever thanked me for my assistance, I asked them to write a letter to the hotel extolling my virtues.) I sat. He looked at me evenly and quietly said, “Mike, I am not going to fire you. Not now, at least. You have many good letters. Read my memo later today. Read it, live it.” Relieved, I went to work, focused on the Zen of checking in guests. The memo came out:
To: Front desk staff Re: Swearing in Arabic Henceforth, only I will be allowed to swear in Arabic at the front desk. Any staff violating this rule will be terminated.
Close call. Years later, I am an employment lawyer, and I have never forgotten what that boss taught me. I like to think of it as principled compassion (PC). What happened to me was one aspect of it. Time to Reflect PC is best understood in a Q-and-A format. Here’s a key one: Are there any mitigating factors warranting a less severe punishment than termination? That’s the one that saved me, but it has various cousins, all looking to whether capital punishment is warranted. Here are others: • What is a proportionate response to the misconduct in question?
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